Cannabis May Cure Cancer, But US Doctors Will Have a Hard Time Finding Out

The US National Cancer Institute, a branch of the National Institutes of Health, touts its website as presenting “Accurate, up-to-date, comprehensive cancer information from the U.S. government’s principal agency for cancer research.”

On March 17, the NCI lived up to its mandate by publishing these two paragraphs on its Cannabis and Cannabinoids PDQ General Information page for Health Professionals:

The potential benefits of medicinal Cannabis for people living with cancer include antiemetic effects, appetite stimulation, pain relief, and improved sleep. In the practice of integrative oncology, the health care provider may recommend medicinal Cannabis not only for symptom management but also for its possible direct antitumor effect.

Cannabinoids may cause antitumor effects by various mechanisms, including induction of cell death, inhibition of cell growth, and inhibition of tumor angiogenesis and metastasis. Cannabinoids appear to kill tumor cells but do not affect their nontransformed counterparts and may even protect them from cell death. These compounds have been shown to induce apoptosis in glioma cells in culture and induce regression of glioma tumors in mice and rats.

Cannabis possibly reduces cancerous tumors without harming other cells? This, surely, is important information for cancer doctors, and indeed all Americans, to know.

Activists have long waited for the US Government to acknowledge this information, known since 1974 and bolstered by current studies on cannabidiol (CBD) (e.g. a Spanish study in 2004 and a 2007 Harvard study.

After the blogosphere took note of this sudden and unusual honesty of the US government, the site was edited on March 30 to say only:

The potential benefits of medicinal Cannabis for people living with cancer include antiemetic effects, appetite stimulation, pain relief, and improved sleep. Though no relevant surveys of practice patterns exist, it appears that physicians caring for cancer patients who prescribe medicinal Cannabis predominantly do so for symptom management.

In addition, the NCI posted an explanation of its self-censorship, pointing out that “In light of the attention garnered by the PDQ summary statement on Cannabis and cannabinoids,” its Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) Editorial Board “reexamined the recently posted statement and decided to change the wording.” It went further to state, “The summary statement represents an independent review of the literature; that review is not influenced by NCI or any other federal agency.”

The NCI still posts the current evidence for the antitumor properties of Cannabis in the summary section titled Laboratory/Animal/Preclinical Studies, but readers who don’t go further than the General Information page will miss the news, and there’s little to prompt any reader from going further than the Overview page, which merely says, “Cannabinoids may have benefits in the treatment of cancer-related side effects.”

Throughout the 8-page section, which covers history, human and clinical studies, and adverse effects, the NCI gives the impression that only a handful of studies have been conducted on medical marijuana, which is true if you consider only the studies the US has actually allowed to take place. NORML has published a fourth edition of its pamphlet Emerging Clinical Applications for Cannabis and Cannabinoids, which reviews the thousands of studies being conducted yearly in other countries on cannabinoids, concluding that the components of cannabis may offer more than just symptomatic relief for other diseases too, like MS, Alzheimer’s and Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Starting with volunteering for Los Angeles NORML in 1992, I’ve been answering pleas for help from the victims of marijuana prohibition for nearly 20 years. Yesterday I heard from someone with prostate cancer, who wants to know all he can about CBD as a possible treatment, since his only other option is chemotherapy.

Sadly, I had to tell him that we are still years away from human studies or a compassionate national policy. Instead, our government impedes research into the potential health benefits of cannabinoids by denying researchers the plant or its “scheduled” components.

Another man wrote wanting to find a reputable oncologist in the Los Angeles area who could counsel him on medical marijuana use. I suggested he talk with his current doctor, armed with the NCI’s statement. But many doctors won’t find that information where the NCI has buried it.

Ellen Komp is Deputy Director of California NORML and a regular contributor to Cannabis Culture.